SNOW! SNOW! SNOW!
While my Floridian relatives consider DC to be “the North,” a lifeless region of cold weather and colder people, the local climate is moderated by the nearby Gulf Stream. It takes a combination of Canadian air and Southern moisture to make snow pop here. We’ve had whole winters without a major snowfall.
But, when it snows, it is beautiful, turning DC into a pedestrian paradise, a living snow globe, a world turned white. It’s really a special city, without cars.
And, if there’s more than a couple inches of snow, the swamp shuts down. Before the storm, panic shopping. After the storm, people huddle inside with beer and snacks. Except for us photographers, who bundle up and head out the door.
It’s a great photo opportunity! DC is at its prettiest in the snow. While the city has gotten better at clearing the white stuff, a major storm will leave the streets car-free for a day or two. A quiet descends on the city. The only thing you hear is the soft sound of boots on uncleared sidewalks. Distant laughter from people throwing snowballs. The swish of cross-country skis on the National Mall.
If you’re willing to venture out, you’ll have the city to yourself. Here are my tips for how to enjoy the rarity of Washington, DC snowstorm. And how to take some good photos.
Where to Go
Here are the places I like to go in the snow:
Spanish Steps (22nd and S NW) – This is hidden gem in Kalorama, a small-scale version of the steps in Rome. It has a classic beauty and makes a really nice spot for a portrait. Look for the Hobbit House on R Street – the blue door of this unique residence makes an interesting photo. From there, you could walk over the P Street bridge to get a photo of Rock Creek Park and then continue on to Georgetown.
Logan Circle – The contrast between the red-brick homes and the white snow is really interesting. Also nearby are Riggs and Corcoran Streets, which are really pretty. And if you get cold, you can visit one of 14th Street’s many coffee places.
Meridian Hill Park – Modeled after a European garden, this is different than the wide-open spaces of the National Mall. It’s full of nooks and crannies, like the statue of Dante. And from the top of the stairs, you get an expansive view of the city.
Lincoln Memorial – The majesty of this monument is magnified by the snow, made more impressive after you trudge a mile through fresh powder to get there.
Smithsonian Castle – During a snowstorm, the Capitol fades from view. You can just make out the turret of the Smithsonian Castle. It’s chilly, but worth it, to get photos of cross-country skiers and crazy bike riders on the snow-covered Mall.
What to Wear
I want to take photos but I also don’t want to die of hypothermia. Here’s what I wear:
- Snowboots – DC snows are very wet. Waterproof boots are essential. Nothing worse than wet feet.
- Fleece-lined pants (snowpants would be a good idea).
- Shirts (at least two)
- Winter jacket
- Hat (I took it off for the photo above).
- Two pairs of gloves – It’s hard to manage a camera in gloves. I have lighter pair when I’m taking pictures and then slip the heavier pair over them when I’m walking.
- Optional: Thermals, long underwear, hand warmers, etc… I think it’s a good idea to wear one more layer than you think you’ll need.
What to Carry
I like to carry the minimum amount of stuff when out tramping in the snow. Here’s what I carry.
- Timbuk2 Messenger Bag – Let me praise this indestructible bag! It’s comfortable to wear, easy to access and, most importantly, it’s water-proof. The rubber liner will protect your valuable gear from the rain and slush. Worth every penny.
- Canon Rebel – I’m on my third Rebel. It’s an easy to use DSLR.
- Jackery Battery – Every iPhoneographer should have one of these. While battery life has improved, if you’re out all day your battery will get low – particularly in the cold. Freezing temps will kill off your battery more quickly than you expect.
- Food/Water – There are no food trucks during a snowstorm. Most restaurants will be closed. Make sure you have some food with you.
What to Shoot
When I’m out wandering the snowstorm, this is what I look for:
Landscapes – Snow turns workaholic DC into a Currier and Ives print, transforming busy city streets into an enchanting frozen landscape. Take photos of a city shut down by Mother Nature.
Activities – There’s no such thing as bad weather but bad clothes, right? I like to take pictures of people doing stuff in the snow. Look for the big snowball fight that’s become a DC snow tradition. I admire the hardy cyclists of this city and like to get photos of them. And two years ago, I saw snow kites on the Mall, which was mind-blowing.
Weirdness – Snow turns the ordinary strange, like a mailbox buried in snow, icicles dripping off buildings or statues covered in the white stuff. Or a snowman contest.
Contrast – Snow has a uniform quality to it that can look boring on film. Look for contrasts, like red berries in the snow or the bright colors of a skier.
Tip: It can be tricky to get photos of snow. Your camera has a hard time with the white balance. Here are some tips from Angela Kleis on how to adjust your camera settings to get that SnOMG photo.
How to Get Around
What’s the best way to get around DC during and after a snowstorm?
- Walk – Put on your boots and go! You’ll have to climb over snowbanks and trudge down snowy sidewalks but that’s part of the fun.
- Metro – Once the storm arrives, the government will shut down. And without passengers, Metro works really well. The underground portion of the system almost never closes. If you can get to a station, you can get around.
All other forms of transportation are problematic. Buses will be running limited routes. Uber fares will be double or triple. If you’re driving, you risk getting stuck on unplowed streets. If you bike, you’ll need studded tires and some good health insurance.
Tip: I like hotel lobbies to warm up in. While everything else might be closed, hotels are always open. They make good places to hang out and upload some photos.
While it’s not exactly the frozen tundra, DC during the snow can be dangerous. Proceed with caution.
- Watch your step. It’s easy to twist an ankle or trip over an obstacle in the snow – look where you’re going. Keep an eye out for ice. Also, those metal sidewalk grates can be really slippery in the snow.
- Watch the weather. During Snowmageddon, I got stir-crazy and wandered out to go watch an EPL game at the Lucky Bar. While I was inside drinking, the blizzard resumed. My walk home was like a Jack London story of survival. That might be a little dramatic but make sure to check the weather before you go out.
- Alcohol is not an insulator. Snow days are synonymous with drinking. Drunk people wander off and die every winter – don’t be that person. Do your drinking at home.
I hate winter but love the snow. Without a paralyzing snowstorm, DC is boring and cold in January. Snow livens things up, turning the city into a winter wonderland.
But it doesn’t last long. Within a few days, the snow will be dirty slush. Don’t miss the opportunity to capture some great DC snow photos.